Chavis accuser described as sharp but quick to sue

August 05, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Longtime associates call Mary E. Stansel a go-getter whose smarts and aggressiveness enabled her to scale the barriers of discrimination in the Deep South and land impressive jobs with law firms, a U.S. senator and finally the nation's premier civil rights group.

But others sketch a less flattering portrait of the woman whose claims of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment have imperiled the tenure of NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. and thrown the nation's oldest civil rights organization into crisis.

Critics say that Ms. Stansel, who has not commented on the controversy since it became public last week, is quick to file lawsuits.

"She may have a litigious history," Abbey G. Hairston, an attorney for Mr. Chavis, said yesterday at a news conference in Washington.

Indeed, Ms. Stansel, 49, brought suit in at least three cases before suing Mr. Chavis in June for allegedly violating the terms of a $332,000 settlement agreement made after she was dismissed from her NAACP job late last year.

In 1985, she sued Eastern Airlines in Atlanta for $500,000, according to court records. Ms. Hairston said the lawsuit grew out of a knee injury Ms. Stansel sustained when she was hit by "a rolling cart" on an Eastern flight. The suit went on for four years before a jury decided against Ms. Stansel's claim and awarded her nothing, Ms. Hairston said.

Her appeals were stalled after Eastern went into bankruptcy, said Kenneth Dious, an attorney in Athens, Ga., who worked briefly on the case.

But complications from the incident continued. Ms. Stansel, then a legislative assistant on the staff of Sen. Howell Heflin, an Alabama Democrat, said she continued to suffer from the airplane injury, according to several former colleagues.

"My image is of her is coming in on crutches with a brace of some sort," said Jerry Ray, a senior vice president with Powell Tate, a public relations firm, who once worked with Ms. Stansel on Senator Heflin's staff.

Associates of Ms. Stansel say the injury and related stomach ailments caused her to miss time from work on Mr. Heflin's staff, where she had been a top legislative assistant specializing in foreign relations and energy issues since 1979.

In July 1991, she left her $57,000-a-year job on "disability," according to Tom McMahon, Senator Heflin's press secretary. To win a disability pension, a congressional staffer must provide medical records and then have the injury confirmed by a battery of examinations.

A month after leaving Mr. Heflin's staff, Ms. Stansel bought a $240,000 town home near Capitol Hill. But shortly afterward, she filed suit against its 81-year-old former owner -- because of problems with the home's air conditioning and heating systems. The suit, which sought $150,000 in damages, was settled last year with a nominal payment to Ms. Stansel, according to people familiar with the case.

In 1990, Ms. Stansel sued the National Bar Association, a 16,000-member organization of black lawyers. The suit, filed in federal court in Birmingham, Ala., and seeking $50,000 in damages, came after the association's president removed her from the group's convention planning committee.

"She had been working with the convention committee, but she had never been appointed to it," said John Crump, the National Bar Association's executive director. ". . . she sued for libel and slander after she was removed."

A month after the suit was filed, the association settled the suit for $5,000, said Mr. Crump. "I wanted to fight it," he said. "I thought that as a matter of principle."

While Mr. Chavis' supporters are trying to use Ms. Stansel's history of filing lawsuits to undermine her credibility, others say that she has always been a hard-working woman.

"She is a very attractive lady, very articulate, very smart, very down to earth," said Mr. Dious, who attended law school with Ms. Stansel at the University of Georgia.

Ms. Stansel graduated from the law school in 1975, where she and Mr. Dious became friends in part, he said, because they were among eight blacks in an enrollment of 500.

Before law school, she earned a master's degree in Spanish at Middlebury College in Vermont, according to Ms. Stansel's resume. She also has said she is a 1967 cum laude graduate of Atlanta's Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University.

After being admitted to the Georgia bar in 1975, the Bessemer, Ala., native reported working for three law firms and in private practice before joining Senator Heflin's staff.

"She was very professional in the discharge of her duties in Senator Heflin's office," said Charles Mitchell, former staffer for Mr. Heflin, now mayor of Muscle Shoals, Ala.

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